U-RISE Supports Student Biomedical Research: UNM Newsroom

Among the many student research programs at the University of New Mexico, the only school in the state to hold the prestigious R1 designation in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, is the Research Training Initiative. Undergraduate for Student Enhancement (U-RISE). At the center of the U-RISE experience is research.

U-RISE helps motivated students from underrepresented groups pursue higher education in biomedical research, explained program manager Jenna Fonta, who also serves as a mentor for the students.

“Our goal is to remove any obstacles they may encounter on their way to higher education. We help them connect with research mentors at UNM or support them in the relationships they already have with research mentors,” she said.

The other head teachers are Program Director and Biology Department Chair Cristina Takacs and Associate Director and Biology Professor Helen Wearing. Ph.D. student Conner Mertz serves as a mentor for U-RISE participants. English department keynote speaker Julianne Newmark and a graduate student working with her, Catherine Hubka, teach writing classes for U-RISE students.

Hispanics, Native Americans, blacks and other underrepresented ethnicities make up only about 8% of biomedical scientists in the United States, Fonta said.

“We have a very diverse student body at UNM and we want to help underrepresented students pursue fulfilling careers in biomedical science. Many students are unaware of the way forward to prepare for graduate school or may not have consistent funding to fully focus on their undergraduate work and research or lack mentors in the field to guide and support them. U-RISE is here to fill in the gaps for these already motivated students,” Fonta said.

U-RISE recruits rising juniors who have a GPA of 3.2 or higher, have strong letters of reference and demonstrate commitment to a career in biomedical research, she noted. Students are required to participate in research at an institution outside of New Mexico to gain further exposure to the biomedical science community, establish professional connections, and practice presenting their research at on-campus symposia and annually at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) Annual Conference. Students come to the annual SACNAS conference to present posters on their research. During the summer before their senior year, they travel to institutions outside of New Mexico to participate in summer research programs.

“It is important for students to step out of their comfort zone and push themselves to learn new skills. During their summer research, they must quickly become familiar with a new research topic, learn new techniques and use these techniques to contribute to the research project. They also learn to work with another PI and laboratory colleagues. Building a good relationship at another institution strengthens their network and their applications for graduate school,” Fonta said.

U-RISE gives participating students a head start on a career path, and students who have a supportive community are more likely to achieve their goals, Fonta said.

Recent graduates have gone to John’s Hopkins University, the University of Colorado at Denver, Duke University, and the Max Planck Institute.

“We primarily focus on research careers in academia as professors and senior researchers, as our ultimate goal is for U-RISE scholars to pursue and obtain a Ph.D. or a dual degree such as an MD/Ph.D. However, we also present scholars with alternative career paths, including scientists in industry or national laboratories, or starting a new biotech company,” said said Takacs.

Current researchers in the U-RISE program are:

Adina Abudushalamu, majoring in biochemistry with a minor in computer science, and is currently identifying a research mentor.

Daisy Belmares-Ortega, a Mechanical Engineering major with a minor in Applied Mathematics, and mentored by Professor Rama Gullapalli of UNM’s Department of Pathology.

Diego DeMmon, with specialization in Chemistry and Biology, and supervised by Professor Iréne Salinas, Department of Biology.

​Alexa Gonzalez, majoring in Biology and Spanish, and mentored by Mubarak Syed, Department of Biology.

​Brandi Hess, biochemistry major, also mentored by Syed.

​Ellie Larence, Computer Science major, and mentored by Melanie Moses, Department of Computer Science.

​Marelessis Palomino, specializing in chemical engineering, and supervised by Diane Lidke, Department of Pathology

Brenda Ramos Villanueva, majoring in biology, and supervised by Christopher Witt, Department of Biology

Julian Rojo, majoring in Chemical Engineering, concentration in Bioengineering, with minors in Mathematics and Chemistry, also mentored by Lidke.

​Brendan Sanders, specializing in biochemistry, and supervised by Mark McCormick, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“In our program, we not only prepare students for acceptance into top graduate programs, we prepare them to thrive once in those programs. They will use the skills they are starting to learn here throughout their careers,” added Fonta. “In U-RISE, we create a small community of students who are all working towards the same goal. The U-RISE team of faculty and staff all have advanced degrees and are here to support and mentor students on their journey to complete their degrees and enter graduate school with confidence.

Image: Attendees at the U-RISE Summer Research Symposium in August gave presentations on their projects and received feedback and support. Back row: Julian Rojo, Diego DeMmon, Cristina Takacs, Conner Mertz, Ellie Larence and Adina Abudushalamu; Front row: Jenna Fonta, Brandi Hess, Helen Wearing, Daisy Belmares-Ortega, Brenda Ramos Villanueva, Alexa Gonzalez and Brendan Sanders. Not pictured: Marelessis Palomino.

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